Tag Archives: Attachment theory

The Ties That Bind: Motherless Mothering

“I am sorry I was born and caused you so much pain.” The scribbling in my old dusty notebook brought back an old familiar pain, long forgotten and buried in the rubble of my foster sister’s basement. As an introspective young girl and a bit of a loner, I filled notebook after notebook with endless internal observation. My private thoughts were not entirely meant to be private. Someday I hoped to hand them to my mother, who I was taken from at 5 and saw sporadically through my elementary school years. I never had that chance. In 2004, holding my own newborn daughter in my arms, I was told my mother died years before and did not want me notified. In my daughter’s big blue eyes, I found a solace that notebook never brought me. Motherhood closed the door on most of the past, but not all.

Me and my girl.
Me and my growing mini.

The day I found out I was pregnant with my mini me, I sat in my car crying alone before I called anyone with the news. Fear, excitement, nervousness washed over me. What would she look like, a relative? I knew none. I never even saw a baby photo of myself: What mysteries would my genes bring? Would I know how to be a mother? I never really saw one for very long. Before having my daughter, I envied my friends families with their normal family struggles and battles. Their photos on the wall. Their smiling parents at games, graduations, their shared expressions, their family fights, and their tangled emotions. I was envious but just carefully observed. Now, with this new person growing inside me I had the chance to see myself in someone else. I had the chance to undo the past and bring a loved person into the world.

Anytime the umbilical cord is snapped, unnaturally broken, or tethered, the child on the other end suffers. The world seems so large and life feels so alone. As a foster child, the disconnect and mystery surrounding my young life appeared in every friendship, relationship, failure, success, happiness, or sadness.

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Orphanhood and Batman: Redifining Foster Children’s Labels

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It has been a long time since anyone looked at me and used the term “orphan,” but it happened this week. In a clinical sense, the word may fit, but its connotation implies weakness. As my mini me told me, “Aren’t Batman and Superman both orphans? So that’s it, you are my Batman.”

While I do not look good in capes, I do want to redefine the term “orphan” away from the idea of victimhood of foster children, and instead define it by eternal superpowers. Orphans do not have parents as children and are raised by strangers. While they do lose the grounding of being consistently parented, foster children have an inner strength that others do not gain until adulthood. They can use that energy to become their own heroes as adults.

Foster children are children who are taken away from biological relatives due to abuse, neglect, or parental addiction. They are placed in temporary homes until they can be reunited with a safe family member, or even adopted. Many are left in children’s homes or on the street. Homelessness, academic failure, drug use, and suicide rates are very high for former children in care. My goal as a former foster child, is to help others become advocates for themselves, create their own family, and encourage girls in foster care to redefine their strength as they become women.

I was taken from my mother and placed in foster after I was found in her basement starved, abused, and left to die. For years, a lingering court case against her and others kept me as an emotional prisoner to her apologies and to biological connections I lost forever. I was adopted, but both of my adoptive parents died within months of each other, when I was 13. Orphan-hood was in my blood it seemed and so I navigated alone. I watched foster brothers and sisters come and go, some living a life of crime, depression, and drug use. Others, who succeeded, went on to love themselves and won their internal battles against those who left them at their most vulnerable.

Without any guidance, good or bad, as a developing child the brain takes in the environment with little shelter. For some orphans, we see only the bad and keep ourselves in a bubble. For others, they absorb attention and affection anywhere they can, and often the abusers of the world hone in. Orphans are, after all, a weak link. In some ways, this is true. My weakness was and is a codependent helping of others. Out of guilt and maybe shame, I blamed myself for whatever happened in that Brooklyn home as a toddler and infant. That guilt led me to try to fix anyone and anything. It led me to poor boundaries personally. My real solace was found in being alone. When I was not fixing friends or lovers, I sought out time with myself by wandering aimlessly to recoup. It gave me a convenient excuse for not taking care of my own heart. 

While my past did dictate my solace, it did not lead me to victimhood, in fact I was determined to rewrite my story. I  had loose connections with some foster brothers and sisters. Some were good influences and believed in my few talents. I never drank or partied, in fact I was basically a very short adult, even as a teen. I studied hard and became absorbed in books. What my favorite writers like Emily Dickinson or Sylvia Plath could not heal for me was a sense of belonging to something. I was introspective, very much self-aware, and a mother hen. As I look back, I grew very attached to women teachers, friends’ mothers, strangers even. I sought out maternal attachments everywhere.

Some were positive, some were not, but I concluded that rather than seeking out answers from the past, searching for long-lost family, (which proved disastrous emotionally), having my own child was the biggest part of my healing. After years of quiet envy listening to friends complain about their parents, siblings, extended family, I wanted something of my own. On January 22, 2003, whatever higher power exists, decided I needed a little blue-eyed girl to put my heart into, to build walls around, and to help design her own future with strong roots.

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It has been 12 years of non-orphanhood for me! In my eyes, becoming a mother shatters that term altogether. I finally got the normal I heard so much about. It has not been easy. Everything I wanted for her did not happen as I expected. But I got the up all nights, the lioness protection, the graduations, the crying, the sadness, the pain, and the joy of childhood laughter. For the first time, I found myself playing hopscotch and picnicking in the park. I started to love who I was and was proud of my new lineage. I had photos to hang on the wall, photos that resembled me, the good parts of me. With this new piece of me, I strived to become better. I stumbled a few times, but she helped me believe in myself and improve myself. I am forever in her debt.

For other fellow successful orphans, a strong network of close friends, or animals, or successful relationships, became their family, but the commonality is that we all tried to rebuild what many people took for granted. While my girl cannot be my only grounding, which I’m learning painfully as she gets older, I finally have let myself become more vulnerable to a deeper adult relationship and a sense of not being alone. I may even have another child or let someone lift ME up when I need it. For this orphan, that is a huge feat.  After all, what I want my daughter to see, and other former foster children to see, is that Batman or not, every orphan has the opportunities to find success amidst the ruins of our childhood enemies.

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Motherless Mothering: The Endless Cure?

Like most  mothers, passing milestones are sometimes bittersweet. After all, my identity has been intertwined with motherhood for 12 years. Old habits are hard to break. Often, beaming with pride at another birthday or school year, I feel an almost stabbing in my heart. Change is coming, change is here, and the bubble of early childhood years will soon burst. As is, it is leaking.

For former foster children, becoming a parent can help mend the past or play it as a horrible rerun. They can repeat their cycle of abandonment, abuse or carelessness, or they can cradle the gift they have like a prized jewel.  I have a jewel and I cradle it as much as she will let me! In many ways becoming a mother saved me. But, while some healing comes from the unconditional love of motherhood, some healing has to come from within.

Me and my growing mini.
Me and my growing mini.

Foster children, are children who were taken from their biological family due to abuse, neglect, or drug addiction. Of the hundreds of thousands in care now, thousands will never see their biological family again, thousands will spend their childhood living with stranger after stranger, thousands will sit in court rooms for their entire childhood, thousands will be reunited with abusers, thousands will live in homeless shelters, hundreds will commit suicide. A small percentage find stability.

I was taken from my mother when I was 5, after I was found abused, starved and burnt. I was left in a basement to die. For years, I saw my mother in supervised visits until one day she just vanished when I was about 10.  I was adopted, and within 2 years my adoptive parents died. Change was part of my life. I learned quickly not to get too attached.

As I became an adult, I never felt jaded, but instead tried to save everyone around me, perhaps trying to heal the past. Perhaps because I felt to blame for my abuse. Still I always had some inner strength that kept me from dwelling. I hoped one day to have my own lineage, one that would be proud to be part of me.

The day I found out I was pregnant with mini me, I cried like I never cried before. I was happy, scared, fearful, and almost in a state of panic! I spent weeks reading everything I could about motherhood. The word “mother,” seemed so illusive. I felt like someone just threw me out of plane with no parachute. So, I did what any good English major would do;  I read about the most heinous mothers in the world, I read about the best. I read something from every psychologist on the planet. And I felt prepared.

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Motherless Mothers

As children, we define the term mother or father with femaleness and manhood. We gather up this definition from our role models, good or bad. Some lose that image through death and hold on to that ideal or negative image as something to work toward or run away from for the rest of their adult life.

20131004-081342.jpgFor children who have no model, or a conglomeration of role models from strangers, this identification is daunting. My daughter is 10 years old. At her age my real mother had vanished after years of confusing court visits. I had an adoptive mother step in for a few years until she died before I entered 8th grade. After that, I observed the relationships, identities, tragedies, and triumphs of my foster sisters who I lived with until I left high school. I sometimes watched the movements of friends’ mothers, or strangers on the street, gathering up my idea of what a mother really might be.

I decided when I became a mother that motherhood must be the ideal image I saw in television shows; baking cupcakes, sitting at games, supportive, emotionally present, consistent. This is what I modeled my parenting style after and every minute of it has been the joy of my life. I have had years of birthday parties, years of scraped knees and hospital visits, crying , laughter, games, homework, dinners, baking, crafts, school projects, diaper changing, up all nights, cuddling all day, picnics in the park; all the things I missed out on as a child. Being a mother saved my heart.
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Attachment Vs. Detachment : Theories Vary

Rainer Maria Rilke discusses the incompleteness of lovers who lose themselves in others, without first finishing their self work. It becomes a whirlwind of attachment and detachment.

Decades of research shows early neglect or abuse hinders the brain from learning how to healthily attach to others. For children in foster care, early neglect and violence ( physical and emotional) can cause attachment issues for life.

These attachment disorders are also seen in adults with PTSD ( negative destructive cycles of reaction to stress ) or depressive disorders– and carry on throughout life until there is an intervention of some sort.

20140222-113356.jpgThe avoidant, disordered and disruptive attachments seen in abused children carries well into adulthood. These negative styles are also seen in the adult fallout with PTSD. The dissociative symptoms, self-destructive habits, impulsive attachments, the high prevalence of divorce, the self loathing and a feeling of being disrupted or broken — breeds a torturous playground of tragic attachment.

Healthy adults attach themselves to friends and lovers when trust is gained. Unhealthy attachments can be an immediate attachment to strangers, to casual friends, and to every lover. They can be attachments that are bound by emotional, physical abuse or emotional addictions.

Abused children will sometimes try to people please abusers and form an unhealthy attachment. They cling dearly to teachers, social workers, or even someone on the bus. This cycle can carry on into adulthood.

These unhealthy attachments are built on the hope of healing old wounds, and quickly become attachments that create more. Unhealthy adults attach quickly to those who can fill a space in their emptiness without filling in their own empty space, so they are complete in themselves and able to give love and receive.

The detachment in these cases is equally as damaging. Individuals who disengage quickly, who keep no support system build harrowing self-defense mechanisms.

In a healthy adult attachment, when the friendship or relationship ends, or a person dies–a grieving period commences. After going through a series of sadness, guilt, anger and acceptance..the healthy person regains inner strength. He or she finds a way to re-attach to support networks and begin anew in time.

In the unhealthy detachment however; fear, anger and insecurity drives the person to detach coldly. The friendship or person lost is erased quickly. They remove all memorabilia and quickly look for a new replacement.

Often times this detachment is self fulfilling.”This person can hurt me so I will push it until this person feels so unloved they may go, then I can say I was left and detach.” Children in foster care will sometimes push away healthy children and adults, for fear they will get emotionally scarred by abandonment.

Another unhealthy detachment is where one sinks into a depression and does properly go through grieving stages when a friendship ends, or someone dies. They get stuck. They are immobile.Teens in abused homes exhibit this by isolating themselves, attaching to street friends who may or may not be well-intentioned and to lovers.

It is important that in working with former child abuse victims or sufferers of PTSD that we teach self-accountability, offer cognitive therapies, and instill stable support by gaining trust.

Leaning on positive community influences can help, but without personal accountability one on one with a counselor, issues will go unresolved and worsen.

Most important is teaching them to release blame for things they could not control, while being accountable for their controllable behavior.

It’s about changing their own cycles that enable unhealthy attachments. Finding healthy attachment in mentors and healthy friends is the best way to combat the search for an unhealthy replacement.

It takes a lot of painful looking inward to move forward with a healthier life after abuse..Especially as a child when it is all you know.When the one person who brought you into this world beats, neglects, burns, beats, molests or starves you…trust is a long, long road.

I was an unhealthy attacher as a teen and in my early 20s. My first teenage boyfriend was abusive. Fortunately, I had friends who helped me release myself from that situation. I was attached and attracted to his attention, and I felt I could fix him. ( Didnt work). My experiences as an abused foster child made me think I could “right” the past by appeasing this man.

Me, about a year after being taken from my mother, 1981.
Me, about a year after being taken from my mother, 1981.

I attached easily to women as well. I remember feeling an emotional connection to one person I kept seeing on the subway. She said hello once or twice.. And I started seeing her as a mother type figure. I imagined very familial things with someone I did not know.

From then on every man I met was a knight in shining armor. I attached easily and ferociously. Detaching was impossible, I would get stuck. 99.9 percent of my intimate relationships since I worked on those struggles and closed the door on the past.. have been healthy.

When things have not worked out, it has generally been a healthy parting after years of work. With the exception of a couple of emotional pitfalls, I avoided that cycle or ran from it once I noticed it was not healthy. I would like to detach quicker but it is a process ! 😉

Now, when I do attach..detaching is hard..not because I get stuck–but because I am so careful with my heart that once it is given away — to even a friend, it is nearly impossible to forget. I am not careless with my emotion. But it runs deep if I let it get the best of me.

When underneath it all, we feel we are undeserving..then all the affairs in the world will not make things right. If we keep leaving jobs, then blaming others, we will lose a career. If we keep turning off the switch on lovers..we lose the new families we create. New faces will disappoint time and again.

When we are hurt and damaged inside, we need to seek counseling to heal. We need to point inward so our lives can be successful. And I know it is cliché but it takes a big person to seek counseling. Most do not. It is self accountability that is hardest to confess.

Yes, foster children do not deserve the lot they are given, I did not deserve it. Yes, survivors of sexual abuse do not deserve what happened, yes starving on the street as a child can make you a negative adult, and yes being left hurts. Going to war hurts. Losing spouses hurts. People dying hurts those left behind.

However, everyone deserves to give themselves the tools to stop using excuses and start building a full life from within. And then, we can all find the attachments, friends, lovers, family that helps us grow.

As mentors who work with former foster children, or children in the system, warriors, or other adults who are overcoming trauma, it is our job to turn on the light. Everyone is a work in progress and with the right support, anyone with any background , and any experience can live a full life with healthy attachments and security.

Life and love are so much more fulfilling when we feel safe with ourselves.

http://apt.rcpsych.org/content/15/3/172.full

http://www.parkerville.org.au/child-abuse/child-abuse-and-attachment/

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This work by menaanne.wordpress.com is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.